Relive the 1946 Winecoff Hotel fire in Atlanta, Georgia – the deadliest hotel fire in U.S. history.
Longtime residents of Atlanta, Georgia might find that the events in our ghost story “One More Room” sound eerily familiar. This story is based on the fire that ravaged Atlanta’s Winecoff Hotel on the morning of December 7, 1946. The Winecoff Hotel fire claimed 119 lives, one of the deadliest hotel fires in U.S. history.
Once heralded as “Atlanta’s Newest and Finest,” the Winecoff Hotel was a grand, 15-floor edifice and Atlanta’s tallest hotel at the time. It was located in the heart of downtown Atlanta’s business and entertainment district, at the corner of Peachtree Street and Ellis Street NW.
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Christmas at the Winecoff Hotel
On that fateful day, over 300 guests filled the Winecoff Hotel. These included holiday tourists, discharged soldiers, and permanent or semi-permanent residents (including the Winecoff family, who kept an apartment in the building).
Years before the era of suburban malls, downtown shopping at the nearby Davison’s department store (later Macy’s) was an elegant experience modeled after the flagship in New York City – especially so at Christmas. In November 1946, the nearby Loew’s Grand Theatre hosted the world premiere of Disney’s animated feature Song of the South, which was still drawing crowds.
Furthermore, a group of 40 high school students had booked rooms. That year, the State YMCA of Georgia launched a “Youth in Government” program. Its goal was to introduce students to the functions of state government and civic responsibility. The Winecoff Hotel was mere blocks from the Georgia State Capitol.
“Absolutely Fireproof” Hotel
Opened in 1913, the Winecoff Hotel was a steel-framed building covered in brick, structural clay tile, plaster and concrete. Its owners boasted in advertisements and hotel stationary it was “absolutely fireproof.” Although some of the interior design finishes, like wooden doors, fabric wainscoting and thick layers of wallpaper, were anything but. Moreover, these being the days before central air conditioning, the hotel rooms used transoms above the doors to circulate air.
The guest floors were serviced by two elevators and a single stairway without fire resistant doors. City of Atlanta building code at the time allowed hotels on smaller lots (the Winecoff sat on less than 5,000 square feet) to only have one staircase.
In addition, the Winecoff Hotel had no internal fire sprinkler system. Rather, there was a single vertical pipe (or standpipe) with fire hose connections on each floor. The City of Atlanta had revised fire codes in 1943 after a rash of hotel fires. But older structures like the Winecoff were not required to install sprinklers.
A Devastating Fire
Around 3 a.m. on December 7, a fire started on the third floor of the building. How it started has been a matter of much debate. Some believe it was an accident caused by a dropped cigarette or match, others point toward arson.
However the fire started, flames raced quickly up the winding single staircase. In no time, the structure was ablaze. Combustible interior materials burned quickly. While open windows and door transoms provided plenty of air to fuel the flames.
Although the hotel had a central fire alarm operated from the front desk, it never sounded. Many guests were awakened by the screams of their fellow guests.
Massive Firefighting Operation
Being a downtown hotel, the Winecoff was only a few blocks from the Atlanta Fire Department. The first engine and ladder arrived within 30 seconds of the initial call. Over 400 firefighters from Atlanta and surrounding departments would eventually descend on the burning hotel.
But even with the quick response, the fire department was too late for many guests, especially those trapped on the upper floors. It was a chaotic scene, with people running about and black smoke billowing from the building. Firefighters were constantly hampered by falling bodies, as desperate guests jumped from widows or between buildings. Some tied bed sheets to upper widows, trying to rappel to safety.
Perhaps the most iconic image from the disaster was taken by 24-year-old Arnold Hardy, a Georgia Tech graduate student. Walking home from a dance that morning, Hardy heard the fire alarms and swiftly located the site of the blaze. He arrived just in time to snap a photo of Daisy McCumber jumping from a hotel window. McCumber survived, and Hardy would later win the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography for his startling image.
Firefighters bravely climbed the Winecoff to rescue guests. Ladders were stretched not only up the hotel itself, but across alleyways from nearby buildings.
When the fire was finally extinguished, 119 people were dead. Including 30 of the visiting high school students and the Winecoff family themselves. But 195 guests were saved – a remarkable feat given the swiftness of the blaze and the hotel’s cramped design.
In response to the Winecoff Hotel fire, sweeping new fire codes were passed throughout the country. Older buildings in Atlanta were retrofitted with fire escapes and sprinklers, and the fire department received new equipment.
Even though these changes came too late for the victims of the Winecoff fire, all hotel patrons benefit today from safety regulations put in place in reaction to this tragedy.
Forgotten, Then Reborn
In the 1950s, the Winecoff building reopened as the Peachtree on Peachtree Hotel, with required safety systems. It closed again a decade later, and was donated to the Georgia Baptist Convention as a senior living facility. The building then passed between numerous developers and stalled ambitions.
Other than a brief stint as a gift shop during the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, the former Winecoff Hotel sat like a ghostly shell on Peachtree Street for years. Finally in 2006, the building was sold and redeveloped into the Ellis Hotel, a boutique property in operation to this day.
Much of downtown Atlanta has been revitalized thanks to the 1996 Olympics, the expansion of nearby Georgia State University, and steady business and residential investment.
Memories of the Winecoff Hotel fire have largely faded away, save the lone historic marker still standing beside the Ellis Hotel. This marks the spot of the worst hotel fire in U.S history. As well as the catalyst for new safety standards in the very hotel you may be sleeping in!
View the gallery below for more photos of the Winecoff Hotel fire:
Top of page banner photo of the Winecoff Hotel in 1984 by Acroterion licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.